Book Review: “Birds of Maine” by Michael DeForge

With “Birds of Maine,” comics creator Michael DeForge puts forth an off-kilter masterpiece. This extensive graphic novel follows the general format of a daily strip, with four panels and (typically) a gag to close. But it’s delightfully colorful and weird. Better, the panels gradually cohere into a larger journey of creation and self-discovery.

Our primary character is Ginni, a young cardinal. She has a supportive family, friends that she forms a band with and a dream of being a fashion designer (despite the fact that birds don’t wear clothes). She lives in a bird colony on the moon, a utopian, quasi-Marxist place, colonized long ago and now in distant contact with the humans (and birds) of Earth.

Things are pretty good on the moon. Birds there have a fungal computer network with which they can communicate, a “universal worm” to sustain them and ample polycules and bird orgies (along with a general “live and let live” attitude). Among this abundance, though, Ginni has to go through the young-person’s journey of self-discovery, figuring out who exactly she is and what role she should play.

DeForge uses his bird utopia to satirize life on Earth. Even with the help of the best bird historians, his cast can’t quite get a grasp on the need to work, health insurance or being forced to stay with your family of birth. Despite the political undertones of his avian perspective here, DeForge doesn’t come off as judgy or preachy. His birds have a sense of humor about themselves and are perfectly capable of being ridiculous when called for. Sections about human society are balanced with a well-placed F bomb or bird breeding joke.

The story doesn’t stay static. Ginni becomes pen pals with an Earth-based bird fan. A human astronaut drops in (although she’s more hung up on her ex-boyfriend than committed to any cross-species connection). But the story is a slow build, with the characters and their reactions to one another taking the forefront.

DeForge’s art is beautiful throughout. Colorful, wiggly and almost psychedelic, it uses the whole palate to convey the range of bird colors and types. He adapts a cartoony shorthand for most of the characters, rendering them as a simple configuration of shapes–more like flowers than birds. But his reduction of form makes the characters memorable and distinct, even as DeForge occasionally zooms in for more detailed depictions of angry swans and fungal networks.

“Birds of Maine” is a difficult work to describe, but it’s wonderful to experience. Thoughtful, playful and artistic, it’s an accomplishment to behold.